Since I live in an area where wildfires have been devastating communities, this is some of what I’m hearing in therapy this week:
“I’m having trouble breathing.”
“Should I keep my child home from school or make them wear a face mask?”
“Three of my friends just lost their houses.”
“I can’t seem to focus.”
“I was just starting to get my head around the Las Vegas shooting and now this.”
“I don’t even know how to take care of myself right now.”
“Donating bags of supplies doesn’t seem like enough.”
“I’t’s just one disaster after another- I’m not sure I want to bring my children up in this world.”
These are from people living near the wildfires. Not the ones who directly lost their houses, schools, churches in the fire. So you can only imagine the trauma for those impacted even more directly.
A Little About Trauma:
What is trauma? According to the APA (American Psychological Association) trauma can be defined as:
“an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and… physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives. Psychologists can help these individuals find constructive ways of managing their emotions.”
Secondary trauma can be defined as “the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.” (Figley, C.R., Ed., 1995).
According to Secondarytrauma.org, some of the symptoms of secondary trauma include:
- intrusive thoughts
- chronic fatigue
- poor concentration
- second guessing
- emotional exhaustion
Many caregivers, therapists, nurses, firefighters, emergency providers, and what I call “senstives” or “empaths” experience secondary trauma. Secondary trauma can result from working directly with people who experienced trauma.
But what can we do about it?
If you are feeling the effects of trauma, here are some thoughts on self-care.
- Physical self-care
A friend of mine said recently, “I feel like a baby. I don’t even know how to take care of myself during this.” Actually, thinking of baby self-care is a good clue as to what you may need. Babies need physical care and tending. If you are able to, keep regular routines of sleep, meals/snacks, hygiene (showers and baths), and stay hydrated. Obviously, physical self-care also includes staying in a safe house or shelter. In the bay area, many hotels, air b and b’s, and nearby friends/family members/colleagues are offering shelter for those who have lost their house or residence due to the fires.
2. Emotional Self-Care
When thinking about a time when you have felt grounded, ask yourself what you were doing? It may have been journalling, meditating, or spending time with a dear friend. Although tempting to NOT do these things during times of crisis, it is actually even more important to do them. This is the directive of “put your own oxygen mask on first.” You cannot be of service to others of you are unable to breathe yourself.
3. Help others
Note this comes third on the list. After you make sure you are taken care of and resourced, then you can give, whether it be through providing housing, volunteering, donating supplies, or emotionally supporting people affected by the disaster.
If you are a parent:
Here’s a beautiful acronym/summary of ways to support your child during/after a disaster or emergency from Alberta Health Services:
Remove yourself and your loved ones from danger. During an emergency or disaster, finding shelter, water, and food is the first step. Staying safe and keeping calm is important in helping you and your child in an emergency.
Eat nutritious food and drink water.
Activity. Return to your normal routine as quickly and much as possible. Try to do what your family normally did before the event (e.g., eat meals together, walk together, play games, read).
Take care of yourself! One of the gifts of both recovery and of disasters is that it forces asking questions such as: What is most important? And what do I need to take care of myself right now? Here’s to living our way into those answers.
As always, this blog is not intended to provide or replace psychological treatment.
Mentis in Napa county is one of many mental health centers in the bay area providing mental health support at low fee currently for victims of the California wildfires. 707-255-0966 ext 132 http://mentisnapa.org/our-services/#mental
The National Center for PTSD is a good resource for information on trauma recovery: https://www.ptsd.va.gov
The holidays can be hard. They can be especially difficult for people recovering from disordered eating, alcoholism, depression, or anxiety. The intention of this blog is to help you be a bit more fierce with your own self-care and a bit more compassionate with yourself and others. This is not a list to use to beat up on yourself for not doing enough or being imperfect! May it be helpful, useful, and ease some of your suffering during this time.
Try not to let yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Getting too tired, hungry/hypoglycemic, resentful, or isolating is a recipe for addictive behaviors and/or depression. Imagine yourself to be a little one (this will not be hard for you parents to imagine) who needs regular meals and snacks, regular emotional understanding, and regular sleep. If little ones get too tired/hungry/emotionally not heard, there will be meltdowns. Be a kind parent to yourself. Pack a self-care bag with protein snacks, water, get to bed on time, make plans with friends and/or providers that “get” you so you can feel nourished and grounded. Practice what a friend of mine calls “aggressive self-care.”
2. Keep 1 Thing Constant
Choose one thing – morning meditation, weekly support group, your meal plan, sobriety, journaling, daily inspirational reading. Whatever it is, just keep coming back to this.
A Word About Kindness and Self-Compassion
The intention here is to help you be a bit more fierce with your own self-care and a bit more compassionate with yourself and others… not to beat up on yourself for not doing enough or being imperfect. So if you HAVEN’T kept one thing constant, just restart it. And when you notice you haven’t kept your thing – whatever your thing is that keeps you grounded and sane – constant (We all fall off the wagon on this. It is part of being included in humanity.), notice with kindness and compassion. Imagine you are a puppy. Gently pick yourself up from the place where you are being unkind to yourself and bring yourself back to the place where you are being kind. Gently bring yourself back to the thing that helps you. Just keep coming back.
(I’m Guest blogging for a San Francisco therapist’s site! Here is the beginning of the article, then click on the link below to continue reading)
Last weekend I went to the movies with my preschooler. It was a special theater adventure into which we snuck in a large purse full of popcorn. As the lights dimmed and the light-up crocks flashed, we heard lots of excited children exclaiming “It’s starting!!!” and some not-so-happy babies sharing in their preverbal-but-very-easily-interpreted sounds.
I have to say I think I enjoyed the movie much more than my child. The Psychologist part of me was impressed with the ways they imaged memory consolidation in the brain and characterized feelings. Here are a couple of things that stood out as ways to practice emotional understanding either as a parent to your inner child, your external child/ren, or both.
1. Externalizing and characterizing parts of the self makes them less scary
The other night I lost it with my preschooler after 9,003 (ok it cold have been 9,002) attempts to get teeth brushed before bed and yelled “BRUSH YOUR TEETH RIGHT NOW!” (I do not recommend this). After taking a deep breath, I was able to soften my own guilt for yelling and make it less scary/ more able to be released for my child by stating,
We then talked about “the angry flame-guy” and how sometimes t is helpful to shoot out flames (like when you are trying to get the window open for your friends joy and sadness) and sometimes it is not helpful to shoot out flames (like when you are trying to get your child to brush their teeth) but it’s just the angry flame-guy, and we all have an angry flame-guy part of our self. We also all have a sad, crumpled-on-the-floor-have-to-drag-me-around part, a green, disdainful-condescending-mean-girl part, a pixie fly-around-in-joy-reframing-everything-as-a-growth-opportunity part, etc. They are just parts of the self, not ALL of the self. When we remember that, we can stay an integrated whole Self. And when we forget, that, we become dis-integrated, overwhelmed self.